Ohio’s first GOP Senate debate centers on who’s aligned with Trump — and who’s a ‘phony’

CLEVELAND — Three Republicans vying for Ohio’s competitive U.S. Senate seat argued at a televised debate here Monday not so much about who is best for the state, but rather who is best for Donald Trump.

Businessman Bernie Moreno already has the former president’s endorsement — a fact he shoehorned into the first 30 seconds of his response to the first question. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who a month ago predicted Trump would remain neutral, presented himself as an unshakable ally.

Then there was Matt Dolan, a state senator who has expressed a desire to move on from Trump and did not jockey for his endorsement but pledged onstage to support him if he is the GOP’s presidential nominee. Dolan, who was the night’s chief aggressor onstage, also asserted that, given his recent legislative experience, he is the most in sync with Trump while accusing his rivals of “phony” reverence.

“The reality is I’m the only one in this stage who has enacted Trump policies,” Dolan said. “These two have spent a great deal of time deleting all their past comments, hateful comments on Trump. And now, because it’s in their political best interests, they’re saying something completely different.”

Trump is the front-runner for this year’s Republican presidential nomination — a status that could be further solidified Tuesday in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Monday’s debate, hosted by WJW-TV of Cleveland and broadcast live across Ohio on Nexstar-owned stations, was the first of several planned ahead of the March 19 primary. The GOP nominee will go on to face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in what is expected to be one of the year’s fiercest and most expensive Senate races.

Although Brown and President Joe Biden were criticized several times Monday, the candidates spent much of the time fighting one another — even in areas where they mostly agreed.

Moreno chastised LaRose for saying in an interview last month that Trump had told him he was unlikely to endorse anyone in the primary. Trump endorsed Moreno the next day.

“I think it’s extremely horrific that Frank would have lied and said that President Trump told him something that he obviously did not tell him,” Moreno said.

After LaRose denied having lied about his conversation with Trump, Moreno shot back: “So you just called President Trump a liar.”

Later in the debate, moderators pressed LaRose and Moreno about their shifts in rhetoric since the riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. At the time, LaRose and Moreno condemned the violence and destruction. Both have since described some of those who have been charged as political “prisoners” — language that echoes Trump’s.

Dolan slammed Moreno for a response that was sympathetic to alleged rioters.

“We just heard an absolute political phony answer,” Dolan said. “He’s trying to reinvent himself. Jan. 6 was a bad day, and I said it then. Jan. 6, was … a bad day, and I’m saying it now.”

That comment and others rankled Moreno.

“If you want Liz Cheney to represent you as the United States senator from Ohio, here’s your choice,” Moreno said, referring to the former Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who had a leading role in the House Jan. 6 hearings.

At another point, after Dolan called attention to lawsuits Moreno faced during his years as a car dealer, Moreno snarked that “that’s what third place looks like.”

There have been no public polls in the primary since Trump’s endorsement last month. Moreno and Dolan are both independently wealthy and already have budgeted millions of dollars for TV ads, while LaRose is relying more on an aligned super PAC.

The debate moderators also pushed the candidates on abortion rights, which were codified into the Ohio Constitution last year following a ballot initiative that all three candidates opposed. LaRose had been the face of the opposition after having previously championed a separate, failed measure that would have raised the threshold to pass such amendments.

Dolan, LaRose and Moreno all avoided direct answers when they were asked whether they supported a federal abortion ban, but each made it clear they were in favor of some federal restrictions.

“Listen, the states can set their own standards, but there should be a bare minimum that we look at at the federal level, and we’re not a nation that should allow late-term abortion,” LaRose said.

Dolan offered a similar thought: “I don’t want it to be a federal issue. But I don’t want late-term abortions to be the norm in the United States of America.”

He also took a shot at LaRose’s involvement in last year’s abortion fight in the state.

“Frank went around the state and talked to Republicans who already agreed with him to prepare him for this U.S. Senate race,” Dolan said. “Frank, you should have been doing what my team was doing — going door to door talking to undecided voters to explain to them how outrageous this abortion amendment was.”

Moreno reminded viewers several times that he has Trump’s support — and for good measure, his campaign aired two ads right before the debate’s Cleveland broadcast touting the endorsement.

“We only save this country when we stop sending career politicians to Washington, D.C.,” Moreno said in his closing statement. “That’s what we saw with President Trump.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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